Our 3½-year-old is enjoying the boundary phase and being contrary. I don’t think it is anything out of the realm of normal, so I’m trying to not make a big deal of things. But there are times when it seems as if he is looking for a particular response. For instance, when he gets frustrated and hits his little brother, we try to do a routine of removing him, without hurting, and telling him, “If your body wants to hit, here are some safe things to hit.” He responds with a cartoonish evil-villain rant: “I love hurting people. Hurting people is my JOB! Ha!” I’ve been trying a pretty neutral response, such as “Yep, it can feel that way. Your body and brain are still learning,” etc. The evil-villain rant continues, as if he’s looking for a particular response and not getting it. What’s up with that? No complaints or comments from preschool on this topic.

I admit I laughed out loud when you said your son does an “evil-villain rant.” I am imagining a sweet boy, wringing his little hands together and throwing his head back in an evil laugh. I know that isn’t happening, but I am sure it feels that way to you.

The good news is that you know that this is in “the realm of normal” for a 3½ -year-old, and trust me, that counts for a lot these days. More and more, American culture wants our children to be sweet and little and cute and yet completely rational. It doesn’t work that way. The wide-eyed wonder of the 3-year-old is the very immaturity we often tire of when the going gets tough.

Three-year-olds are notoriously magical in thought, short in logic, big in emotion and just beginning to possess themselves, physically and emotionally. The 2-year-old who wanted to happily follow you around has given way to a child who is beginning to show strong preferences. Because the ability to reflect upon his own thinking is years off, your son’s actions and opinions can seem haphazard and random. He is operating by a set of deep impulses of which he is not aware. And you largely don’t know what he needs or wants either. In short, it’s tough.

So why the evil-villain laughing and “Hurting people is my JOB!” stuff? You are using just about every strategy in the positive parenting playbook, including neutrality, agreeing with the feeling and finding something else for your son to hit. Well done! Although most parents focus only on what they are doing, let me mention some of the things you are not doing:

1. Shaming. You are not going out of your way to call your son a bad boy, tell him how inappropriate it is to say he wants to hurt his brother, or shame him for the hitting.

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2. Putting him in timeout. The fastest way to provoke more misbehavior is to use separation-based punishment. When you angrily remove a 3-year-old from your presence, you’re saying: “I cannot be around you. Our relationship is on the line.” This causes panic in young children, who are programmed to be physically and emotionally near you. So, hey, well done.

3. Asking why. There is nothing more futile than asking 3-year-olds why they did something. They don’t know. Your son’s brain is not going to click in and say, “Oh, hey, Mom, so listen. I am tired and not feeling great, and my little brother is super-annoying. I am lashing out because I don’t have the ability to moderate all of my thoughts and feelings. Thanks for listening.” He is not going to do that, not now and, based on many adults I see, maybe not ever.

4. Asking him to use his words. Have you ever been angry and had someone ask you to “calmly restate your feelings”? It’s hard. Your son has all of his adrenaline and cortisol going, and he cannot regulate these big emotions. Asking a 3-year-old to “use his words” is just adding fuel to this fire of frustration. Trying to get to the root feelings is a good idea, just not when emotions are running hot.

5. Spanking or taking things away. These are the extreme versions of timeouts and do not help the frustration. If preschoolers’ behavior gets better after you spank them, it is because they no longer trust you. If you cannot trust your parent, you are going to have problems growing into a mature adult. Behavior modification is not the Holy Grail here; raising an emotionally mature human is.

How can we help your son through this period?

1. Keep ignoring this “bad guy” stuff in the moment. Remember: Whatever we pay attention to grows, so look carefully at what you are growing.

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2. Look for patterns in the behaviors. Does your son always do this before dinner? Is it when you are distracted? Is it when his little brother is touching a toy? It is much easier to change the environment than to try to change young children. Start keeping a list of when these tussles occur and develop some ideas of how to head them off at the pass.

3. Cuddle your son every night and share stories of when he was little. Retell his birth story (the good highlights), the funny bath stories, moments when he was tough and when he was tender. Stories are (almost) always a safe way into a child’s heart. When he hears your gentle and happy voice, sees your smiling eyes and feels you close to him, his little mind says, “Ahhh, I am safe,” and he relaxes. When you feel that relaxation, you can say that you know his little brother can be frustrating and that tomorrow will be better. Trust me, that’s all a 3½ -year-old can handle. Any more talking about his behavior, and you will push him into defensiveness.

4. Finally, the villain/hero stories are an interesting way to talk about feelings with our little ones. Your son gets frustrated and hurts his brother, but I am also sure he shows great empathy and tenderness. He has a little bit of villain and a little bit of hero in him (like all humans). Your parenting goal is not to eradicate all negative feelings and behaviors; it is to help your son understand himself. So although maturity is years off (we are looking at 7 as the average age of reason, so buckle up), you can grease the wheels by highlighting how normal it is to be loving and to sometimes want to whack your brother. It is normal to help Mom and to throw a fit. Yes, you need to stop the hitting, redirect the anger and change the environment, but you can make room for all the messiness, too. As developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, “The more space you give an emotion, the less room it takes up.”

Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.


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